To say that the Japanese RPG is struggling in North America would be an understatement. It’s hard to imagine now, but at one point, the Final Fantasy series’ latest installments were almost the Call of Duty of their day, selling millions upon release. Fans (myself included) would eagerly await what would become some of our most cherished gaming moments of that year. At the moment, I can’t delve into the history of the rise and fall of the Japanese RPG. What I can do, however, is hopefully convince anyone who will listen to turn their Wii systems back on, even if for just one last hurrah. All systems included, Xenoblade Chronicles is a game that rivals the best that this generation has to offer.
Developer: Nintendo/Monolith Soft
Release Date: April 6th, 2012
Rating: T (Teen)
They dared to tell a story, but will you hear it?
The story of Xenoblade Chronicles takes place on two world-sized gods. We are not told why, but the two gods battled each other. Now they stand tall, formidable, and dormant. The protagonist, Shulk, is a Homs (the “human” race of the game). He lives on the god they call Bionis, a land filled with living creatures. It doesn’t take long before we realize the intense hostility that exists between the beings who live on the two gods (Bionis and Mechonis). Shulk’s hometown is invaded by an army of mechon from Mechonis. During the attack, Shulk and his friends fight a so-called faced mechon who they find is nearly invulnerable to their legendary sword, the Monado. The strange thing about this is that only Homs should be invulnerable to it. After the battle, Shulk is determined to get revenge for the deaths of his people, the destruction of Mechonis being the only thing that can sate him.
The catalyst of revenge lies in the background as Shulk and his group amass their numbers as they go; while at the same time, the plot slowly reveals to us more about the world and its inhabitants. The plot is a bit slow at first, but even then, the many questions players will be asking themselves will keep them more than busy–is this a story about racism? Are the beings of Bionis and Mechonis naturally inheriting the hatred of their hosts? What is the purpose behind the mechon attacks? When all is said and done, you will have experienced one of the most ambitious stories ever told in the realm of video games. If you want a typical “save the day” story with no thinking involved, you should look elsewhere. If you want a fascinating story that will have you on the edge of your seat and make you think about it long after the game is done, look no further.
A world whose exploration rivals the best
Taking into consideration the linearity of too many games today, the world of Bionis is a blast of fresh air. Even having seen the game in screenshots, I wasn’t prepared to be as immersed and interested in the world as I became. When I walked out into the fields of the Bionis’ Leg for the first time, I was simply elated–you mean I get to explore all of this? Not only is Bionis vast, the topography can be really interesting. There are oddly shaped arches that can be walked on top of or gone under, several small ponds, a stream that cuts through the middle of the land, several caves, a lake, and many outer cliff areas–exploration is always fun. I really enjoyed that the artists took inspiration from things that exist, but didn’t settle on making the game look generic. All I’ve described thus far is the first major area of the game. There is also a jungle, desert, tundra, marsh, a beach area with floating islands, and much, much more. Often while traversing Bionis, you can see Mechonis looming in the distance. I cannot stress enough the enormity of the sense of scale that exists in this game–it’s simply awe-inspiring.
In addition to the creative geometry of the areas, there are many small touches that help to bring the world to life. For example, in the areas where there is grass, the grass sways with the wind, and debris occasionally floats by. There are packs of animals roaming the land that, on the whole, lend a natural feel to their environment (as opposed to feeling like they are video game enemies set in specific places). In the Makna forest, the trees and plants are denser than just about anything I’ve seen in digitally playable form. Though there are a few textures that are blurrier than the rest, and one particular section is somewhat bland, overall, the exploration in Xenoblade Chronicles will keep you traveling off the beaten path to see what you can find.
A battle system that remains interesting throughout
The battle system has some interesting design choices in it. In battle you will only be controlling one character, and though Shulk is technically the protagonist, you can opt to play as one of the other characters. Only three characters can go into battle, so you’ll have to choose which ones you want to sit on the sidelines. Each character has their own unique abilities; I had a lot of fun playing as different characters and re-selecting teams whenever I got bored with the current configuration, or when I had to re-think my strategy after failing a big battle. If you want to keep the current team but change who you’re playing as, it conveniently only takes a few seconds.
The battle system is fast-paced and exciting. Each of your characters will build up to a maximum of nine equipped Arts (special abilities), each of which has its own cool-down time. Except for Shulk, each of the party members will have well over a dozen Arts to choose from, so you will have to make some tough decisions. In battle, I was almost constantly pressing the d-pad around to my various Arts, anticipating when they would come back into use. If you want to make the best use of your Arts, you’ll also have to pay attention to the order in which you use them, and watch to see what status effects your other characters have inflicted upon the enemies and react appropriately.
Aside from watching your Arts, you will have to pay attention to several other things that occur during battles. Sometimes you will need to position yourself to the side or behind an enemy to inflict more damage. Other times, you may want to get in front of a group of enemies so that a wide attack hits all of them. Though characters will do their normal attacks when in range of enemies, this is just to make the fights more visually appealing. Players will also have to run over to help teammates who are suffering an ailment. Every now and then a button prompt comes up which requires good timing with the “B” button to increase the Party Gauge (next paragraph). So, Xenoblade Chronicles’ battle system is anything but boring.
One thing that separates Xenoblade Chronicles’ battle system from other games is the power that Shulk has. He can see the future, and this power is used not only in cutscenes, but in the battle system too. During battle, the game may come to a pause and show you a special move that the enemy is going to throw your way. Play resumes, and at the top of the screen you will see the name and type of move that it is, and a bar that slowly decreases, showing you at what precise moment it will strike. At this point, you can use one of Shulk’s Arts to prevent the attack from doing damage, or warn one of the other characters so that they can use one of their Arts. Telling another character to use an Art in this way will decrease your Party Gauge by one bar. At three bars (the maximum), you can empty the Party Gauge to perform a massive combo. However, you may want to use the Party Gauge to revive party members in battle (one bar). This system will have you weighing your options constantly during the tougher fights, and they can get very intense.
The music in Xenoblade Chronicles almost always captures the mood perfectly. The symphonic sounds of it will effortlessly sweep you into the world of Bionis. I can honestly say that there were only maybe two or three tracks that I didn’t like. Thankfully, they make up a very small percentage of the game. The music of this game plays as much a part as the graphics in creating a living world.
There’s got to be something wrong with it, right?
Unfortunately, my one substantial gripe with the game is the voice acting of two particular characters. Xord, a giant, faced mechon is the first annoyance. He is one of the first major bosses of the game, and he has a really obnoxious British accent. Once you’ve killed him, you will be more than happy that you just defeated a boss. The other annoying voice is Riki’s. He’s a stubby, cute (“Nopon”) creature who could be compared to an Ewok. He uses childish phrases like, “Riki like fish!” His voice sounds something like a young (more annoying) Golum who is trying to act cute (and failing miserably). He is a member of your team, and he is in some of the cutscenes. However, this game is much too fantastic to be destroyed by one character (though he does try his damnedest). Some of you may want to find the Japanese language option, because the Japanese voice actor managed to make Riki tolerable. To the rest of the cast, may roses fly your way.
The battle system isn’t perfect. When you attempt to do a combo with your allies, you may find that they’ve already used an Art that would have allowed you to extend the combo further. The only commands you can give to party members are to attack at will, come to your position, or attack a specific target.
In areas where there are numerous amounts of enemies, you may accidentally target and attack an enemy who was not in the current battle. Unfortunately the developers didn’t implement a system that lowers the range of the targeting system when you’re in battle, so if you’re not careful, you may pick up additional enemies (and possibly die). This mainly happens towards the very end of the game, and it will slow the pace of the battles it affects.
The epic conclusion
Xenoblade Chronicles is an amazing experience. Having taken almost a year to arrive in North America, I had plenty of time to hear the hype about the game. I started playing this game with the mindset that it would be one of the best that this generation has to offer. All of that hype should have resulted in me being disappointed, but to the contrary, it exceeded my expectations. If you’re looking for a game whose landscape and aural pleasures will whisk you away to a place you wouldn’t mind living in, play this game. The battle system is one of the most engaging around, requiring strategy beforehand, and all of your attention and reflexes during. The plot starts with simple revenge, but it becomes increasingly complex. Towards the end, plot bombs will drop left and right, blowing your mind and reviving it several times. In the end, you will have lived an adventure with characters who will grow on you, and experienced a story well worth remembering. Don’t be surprised if you feel the need to play it once more.
Completion time was approximately 83 hours with some optional quests and non-essential world-exploration done. I would estimate that the game would take a bare minimum of 50 hours to complete, without the use of guides. With all of the side-quests available, you could easily spend over 120 hours or more.